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Execution by Guillotine: Definition & Invention

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

The Guillotine was invented in 1789, at the start of the French Revolution as a new way to execute people. It became notorious in 1792 as the method of execution for French aristocrats apprehended during the Reign of Terror. Learn more about the history of the Guillotine and how it was used during the French Revolution.

The French Revolution

You're probably familiar with the reasons behind the American Revolution. The colonists disliked the British king's rule and wanted increased representation in government. People in France had very similar feelings about their own government. After the United States successfully separated itself from England, the French were greatly inspired and demanded their own changes. The French Revolution began in 1789 and lasted through the 1790s. While the demands of the French were similar to the American colonists, the events were very different. During a period of time known as The Terror (1793-1794), the newly formed French government killed thousands of people they thought were against the Revolution. These executions were carried out by the guillotine.

History of the Guillotine

During the 1700s, the death penalty was a common punishment in Europe, and executions were very bloody and painful. In some instances, it was designed to torture the victim. At the beginning of the French Revolution, many leaders wanted to move away from these inhumane practices.

On December 10, 1789 a man named Dr. Joseph Guillotin appeared before the Legislative Assembly, France's new government. Dr. Guillotin proposed several important ideas including the fair treatment of convicts' families. He also suggested that France adopt beheading by a special machine, as the national form of capital punishment. Guillotin argued that with his machine, beheading would be fast, painless, and humane. The Legislative Assembly accepted all of Guillotin's ideas, except for the one about a national punishment. Leaders were still unsure about keeping the death penalty.

But in 1791, Guillotin's ideas were revisited, and the decision was made to keep the death penalty. And everyone sentenced to death would have their head cut off by the guillotine, the French execution machine.

What Is a Guillotine?

Though the French guillotine was based off of the ideas of Dr. Joseph Guillotin, designs were perfected by Dr. Antoine Louis, and the machine itself was built by a German engineer named Tobias Schmidt. The machine consisted of two large vertical posts, about 14 feet high, with a crossbar connecting them at the top. The most important part of the guillotine was its weighted blade, which was pulled up to the top using ropes and pulleys. The weighted blade was then released from the top of the vertical poles, and would behead the victim kneeling at the bottom of the machine.

At first, the guillotine was tested on corpses. After seeing the effects, Louis and Schmidt continued to perfect the machine, such as adding a place to collect blood of the victims. On April 25, 1792, the guillotine was ready; the first person executed by guillotine during the French Revolution was convicted robber and murderer, Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier.

The Guillotine and the French Revolution

After the first beheading by guillotine in spring of 1792, the French government copied the machine and sent them all around France. It was considered to be much more efficient than a traditional executioner. The machine never tired and never missed.

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